With second law firm, state’s bill for private lawyers in chef’s case hits $244,000

September 11, 2013

RICHMOND — The state has hired a second law firm to represent employees in the embezzlement case against former Executive Mansion chef Todd Schneider, billing taxpayers nearly $100,000 for work performed in July.

Those charges are in addition to the $144,000 that Richmond’s Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott has charged so far for representing Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his staff.

The new firm, Baker & McKenzie, began work in July and has billed the state $100,000 for that month, charging rates up to $495 an hour. Eckert Seamans bills the state up to $250 an hour.

McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin declined to identify the employees being represented by the new firm or to say whether they work for the governor’s office or some other division of state government. When pressed, he said only: “They are outside counsel representing employees in their official capacity.”

The attorney general’s office normally represents state employees in legal matters stemming from their official duties. But Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), saying it was a conflict of interest to both prosecute the chef and represent employees drawn into the case, had his office recused from both duties.

Eckert Seamans was hired to represent McDonnell and his staff in May. Baker & McKenzie, whose hiring was first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, started in July.

The governor’s office and perhaps other state employees need legal representation in Schneider’s case because as part of his defense, the chef intends to raise questions about mansion operations and McDonnell’s relationship to Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

Schneider, who ran a private catering firm while serving as mansion chef, is accused of pilfering food and other supplies from the state kitchen. He has said that mansion staff directed him to take the items as reimbursement for catering events that fell outside the scope of his state-funded job. He is scheduled to go to trial in October.

Schneider also has accused the governor’s five grown children of raiding the mansion kitchen of large quantities of food, liquor, pots and pans. McDonnell denied any wrongdoing but also reimbursed the state $2,400 for items taken to his children’s own homes or college dorms.

After coming under investigation, Schneider alerted authorities to McDonnell’s ties to Williams, who picked up the $15,000 catering tab at the wedding of a McDonnell daughter at a time when the governor and first lady were promoting Star’s nutritional supplement, Anatabloc.

Those allegations triggered ongoing state and federal investigations focused on McDonnell’s relationship with Williams, who has provided luxury items and $120,000 in money that the governor has described as loans. McDonnell has apologized for embarrassing the state but said he provided no state favors to Williams or Star in exchange for the gifts.

The state-funded legal services are separate from the criminal defense work that another private legal team is providing to McDonnell. A legal defense fund has been set up to pay those bills.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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